Newton County is one step closer to a new form of government.
The enabling legislation would change the county’s 50-year-old charter, shifting administrative and operational responsibility to a full-time county manager. The elected chair would become the political face of the county, advocating for it locally, regionally and nationally.
The new charter was sent to the legislative delegation – Senators Rick Jeffares and JaNice Van Ness, and Representatives Dave Belton, Pam Dickerson, Dale Rutledge and Andrew Welch. On Feb. 19, Jeffares told The Covington News that the legislation had come out of legislative counsel. A notice about the intent to enact local legislation was placed in The Covington News’ Feb. 21 edition.
Once the notice was published and the Senate office received a print version of the legal notice, the bill was signed by the Jeffares and VanNess, the notice stapled to the bill and sent to the representatives, Jeffares said.
One of the sticking points has been the chair’s position and veto power. It is something that concerned Ronnie Cowan, chair of the Citizen’s Committee on the Form of Government. “To have some validity to the chairman’s role, the chair needs to have the ability to veto something if he or she doesn’t think it’s in the best interest of the county. It would give [the Board of Commissioners] a chance to look it over and think about it.
“That’s a whole separate thing to work on,” he said. “They have to get the legislation passed, first — that creates all the powers; that creates the form of government.”
The legislation was sent to the representatives this week. To move forward, the new charter will need to be signed by three of the four representatives on the delegation. Any changes, however slight, would require that the bill be sent back to the Senate for approval.
After clearing both houses, the bill will be sent to the governor to sign. If it’s signed by the governor, the new charter would go in to effect January 2017.
Jeffares said that the overwhelming response to the legislation from county citizens has been positive, with 90 percent of the comments being in favor of enacting the new charter.
Framework for governing
Attorney Jenny Carter, at the time on the staff of the W. T. Craig Law Firm, drafted the enabling legislation as a skeletal outline of how the county government would operate. Specifics would be handled by ordinance. For example, the job description for the county manager was removed from the charter and would be adopted by policy or ordinance.
“Once something is in here [the enabling legislation], we want to make sure it’s something this and future boards can maintain,” she had told the Board of Commissioners when presenting the draft. “The county has some outdated rules and procedures. This sets a framework without limiting the board.”
The decision about changing who has ultimate authority in the county was not put to a vote of the citizens four years ago, when three then-commissioners – Henderson, Tim Fleming and Mort Ewing — approved a motion 3-to-2-vote to strip all powers but oversight of the roads and bridges from then County Chair Kathy Morgan.
Since then, the county seems to have been caught in a quagmire over who had ultimate authority to make decisions and hire and fire staff — the elected chair or the county manager.
In 2014, the BOC created a Citizens Committee to study and make recommendations on the county’s future form of government. Last September, the committee made its recommendations. (See story “BOC hears recommendations from committee on organizational changes,” at http://www.covnews.com/archives/60421/.)
The new charter incorporated many of the recommendations the committee made.
Four of the commissioners voted to approve the new charter; District 4 Commissioner J. C. Henderson voted against it and Chair Keith Ellis adamantly opposed the change, and cast a symbolic vote against it.